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'Sesame Street' Helps Kids Cope with Parents' Incarceration
June 18, 2013  | By Monique Nazareth  | 1 comment

For more than 40 years, Sesame Street has played a role in helping children make sense of the world around them.

Since its launch in 1969, Sesame Street has introduced young viewers to a range of emotions and life situations along with its colorful lessons on words, colors, shapes and numbers. In more recent years, the program has focused on some particularly tough subject matter, such as childhood hunger, divorce, military deployment, and the effects of natural disasters. Now, through a new community initiative, Sesame Street is tackling a subject that affects many of the nation’s kids: Incarceration.

According to a report by the Pew Charitable Trust, more than 2.7 million children in this country have a mother or father in jail or prison. That's one out of every 28 kids, up from one in 125 just 25 years ago. Although it’s a life-changing circumstance, few resources are provided to help a child understand and deal with the situation.  

Enter Sesame Street's new muppet, Alex. He’s orange with blue hair and a green nose. He wears a hoodie and looks sad. Alex won't be appearing on episodes of the show. He was created specifically for Sesame Workshop’s new outreach initiative, Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration, an online tool-kit adults can use to help kids understand and cope with the incarceration of a loved one.   

Lynn Chwatsky, Vice President of Sesame Workshop’s Outreach Initiatives and Partners, said a lot of thought was put into Alex’s appearance. “We want this not to be about race, gender or ethnicity, said Chwatsky, who headed the project. “We want to take that away and say this impacts any child.”

Video clips featuring Alex and his Sesame Street friends are used to introduce the subject. At first Alex doesn’t explain why he’s unhappy talking about his dad, but then he opens up. “My dad’s in jail,” Alex says. “I don’t like to talk about it, most people don’t understand.” The video then goes through the feelings Alex and other children of incarcerated parents have: sadness, anger, and shame.

To produce the tool-kit, Sesame Workshop turned to experts such as Carol F. Burton, the Executive Director of Centerforce, a non-profit which supports individuals and families impacted by incarceration. Burton described the kids who have parents in jail as “the silent victims of the war on crime.”

"They are the collateral damage," Burton says in an interview with the Sesame Workshop blog.  "No one is paying attention to them. When someone is incarcerated, institutions are responsible for their custody and care. Children are left back in the community — communities that are often ravaged by drugs, crime and violence. Lots of those kids are left unattended.”

Burton underscored the importance of the Sesame Workshop project, stressing the effect it will have on the individuals and organizations it's targeting. “I realize that if all the advocates for children of incarcerated parents worked for an entire lifetime to increase awareness, we could not do what Sesame will do with this initiative. It would not reach and impact the audience that Sesame Street will.“

News of the iniative has also sparked a national debate about the effects of incarceration, with many, like Maia Szalavitz, a neuroscience journalist for TIME.com, using it as a springboard to address the current state of the criminal justice system. She writes: “Should we really see better tips for caregivers of children with incarcerated parents as the best way to mitigate the harm? ... maybe, while we provide these band-aids for now, what we really need is a rethink of our entire criminal justice system, one that has become not only the nation’s biggest holding cell for people with addictions, but also its largest psychiatric system — albeit one that only rarely provides evidence-based treatment for either addictions or other mental illnesses."

While broader discussions are warranted, Chwatsky explains that whenever Sesame Workshop approaches any tough topics, such as deployment, death, and incarceration, the organization's focus is purposefully narrow. “We look at it through the lens of a young child," she says. "We’re not saying we are pro-war, we are not saying we believe in incarceration or that the parents deserve to be in jail. That’s not what it’s about. These young children, they have a parent who’s incarcerated. What comes with that is stigma and a lot of feelings, [such as] being scared, and we are trying to provide support for these young children.”

To further publicize the initiative, Sesame Workshop has created an app and 500,000 media kits, and is working with the Department of Corrections, schools, child care providers and various organizations to get the materials into the hands of those it will most benefit.

Chwatsky says Sesame Workshop will measure the initiative's success by following up with those who are caring for affected children to see if there's been an improvement in the way the kids communicate after exposure to the tool-kit content.

“A huge measure of success the feedback we get from people,” she says.  “And we’re already getting it.”

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